Understanding the Science of Gratitude
Always begin with gratitude. This is the wisdom advice that comes to us from many of the world’s indigenous and contemplative teachings. In this spirit, we invite you to join us in taking this powerful awareness and action into your heart and onto your path of deepening spirit in daily life, work, and relationships.
The practice of gratitude antidotes two root sufferings that pervade the human experience. The first can be characterized as a feeling of “insufficiency” — not having enough or not being enough. This fundamental sense of dissatisfaction opens the way to the second kind of suffering — being incessantly busy trying to get more or be more in order to somehow fill this inner feeling of discontentment and lack. Living with an inner attitude of scarcity and poverty-consciousness also makes us prey to being manipulated by external forces that tell us that we will find happiness and satisfaction — finally — if we only acquire or consume this product or that, or once we go to this place or take some other action “out there.” Our preoccupation with seeking inner satisfaction from external sources keeps us on a never-ending merry-go-round of pursuits and distractions, always waiting for and expecting happiness to come to us from the outside. After the temporary pleasure or sense of accomplishment dissipates and wears off — as it always most certainly will — we find ourselves once again pursuing the next “fix.”
The miracle of the practice of gratitude is that it reverses this pattern of looking outwardly for satisfaction, and instantly puts us in touch with all the many gifts and blessings already present in our life. We shift from spinning in perpetual motion on the wheel of seeking happiness from the outside-in to generating happiness from the inside-out. This practice is easy to do and can be done anywhere and any time. The main thing is just to begin to weave this practice more and more often, and more and more regularly, into your life.
Both ancient teachings and modern medical research agree that one of the quickest, most direct routes to restoring harmony and balance in our lives is to foster gratitude and appreciation. The moment you shift from a mindstate of negativity or judgment to one of appreciation, there are immediate effects at many levels of your being: Brain function becomes more balanced, harmonized, and supple; your heart begins to pump in a much more coherent and harmonious rhythm; and biochemical changes trigger a host of healthful responses throughout your body. Especially in difficult times, remembering to return to gratitude is a radical life-affirming act that builds your capacity for resilience.
Not only is an attitude of gratitude good for your spirit and your mental and physical health, it’s even good for your grades! Recent research studies have shown that students who keep “gratitude journals” and write in them regularly, at least once a week, start doing better in school. One family we know has started a “family gratitude journal” that they leave out in the kitchen. As acts of kindness, beauty, blessings, or people they appreciate come to mind, they write them down. Reading and sharing these together has become a family practice that enhances their collective sense of well-being and connectedness. A wise octogenarian friend of ours found that this practice is a perfect sleep aid for her to do during the night when she wakes up and has trouble falling back to sleep. She starts to think appreciatively of each of her children and many grand children one by one, blessing them and sending them gratitude prayers, and as she’s told us, “I never make it through the whole list before I’m peacefully asleep again!”
How have you experienced the practice of gratitude in your family or culture? In the Jewish spiritual tradition, the very first words of prayer spoken upon waking up in the morning express gratitude for the gift of another day of life: “I am grateful. Thank you for returning my soul to me with great compassion.” An important part of Buddhist practice, too, is to begin each day with appreciation for the rare gift of a precious human birth and to contemplate its impermanent and changing nature. Being grateful for still being here and not taking this gift for granted, one reflects: “How then shall I live this precious day? What is important for me to recognize, remember, and pay attention to today?” In the healing ways of indigenous people, the restorative power of gratitude was well understood. A heart filled with gratitude generates actions and prayers that complete the circle between the gift offered to us, the receiver of the gift, and the sacred source of the gift. To offer prayers of thanksgiving is a gesture of rejoicing in discovering the many gifts that life brings us. As we give our thanks, we make the circle whole and stay open to continue to receive this flow of goodness and pass it on. Here is a wonderful meditation that we often teach as a way to dwell in gratitude. It’s a simple way for you to make thanksgiving part of every day:
Sitting quietly, begin with a few minutes of mindful breathing. Bring to mind someone for whom you are deeply grateful. As you breathe in, take this person to heart. Breathing out, let your heartfelt gratitude shine deeply and brightly to them and through them. Continue for as long as you like, letting each breath take to heart a loved one, a friend, someone who has been kind to you, someone who is teaching you patience or how to forgive. Let each breath shine from the depths of your being through the depths of their being in order to light up their life with your love. Taking your eyes, your ears, your hands, your intelligence to heart, bless them in a similar way with the heartfelt radiance of your appreciation. Whoever or whatever comes to mind, gather them into your heart, one at a time or all together. Taking these many gifts to heart, complete and affirm the circle with gratitude, assuring that the stream of blessings in your life and in the universe will be unbroken.
First published as a blog post for the Huffington Post on 07/01/2011, this article is reprinted in 2nd Tuesday with the permission and “blessings” of the authors.
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